How to address your lecturer?

Shows how countries differ in their expected way of address for teachers

In a cross-national study we presented our respondents, MBA students in 22 countries, with short scenarios describing a concrete managerial problem. The scenarios included a predefined set of possible solutions and we asked respondents to rank their top 3 solutions.

As scenario based questions are not yet very common, we included a "warm-up" scenario to help our respondents get used to the format. This scenario queried to the way students are expected to address their teacher. Students were presented with the following question:

Imagine that you are doing an MBA degree at a university in the USA as an international student. One of your teachers is a 40-year old woman named Maria SMITH (Maria is her given name, Smith is her family name). She has a PhD degree/doctorate. In the first seminar she indicated that she has no particular preference as to how you address her. How would you normally address her when you talk to her in class? Please rank the best three alternatives from 1 to 3.

Students were presented with eight answer alternatives: Maria, Mrs. Smith, Professor Smith, Dr. Smith, Dr. Maria, Madam/Mrs, Professor, Teacher. An alternative male version (Peter Smith) was used in half of the cases for each country.

Substantial variety in preferred ways of address

As the scenario asked students to picture themselves as studying in the USA, we can expect respondents to have accommodated their responses to some extent to the US setting. However, the very substantial variety between countries in their preferred ways of address leads us to conclude that home country norms are likely to have also played a significant role in many countries. The full results are available as a white paper on my website. Below we list the three countries most and least likely to use the eight alternatives:

  • Dr. Smith was preferred most in the USA, the UK, and Mexico and least in France, Portugal and the Netherlands
  • Professor Smith was preferred most in the USA, Canada (Anglophones) and Portugal and least in France, the UK and the Netherlands.
  • Professor was preferred most in Portugal, Taiwan and Brazil and least in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK
  • Mr/Mrs Smith was preferred most in France, the Netherlands and Greece and least in Malaysia, the USA and Canada (Anglophones)
  • Maria/Peter was preferred most in the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands and least in France, the USA and Lithuania.
  • The other alternatives were not particularly popular although 40% of the Malaysian students chose Dr. Maria/Dr. Peter as their 1st or 2nd preference and 50% of the Lithuanian students picked Teacher as their 1st or 2nd preference.
  • Madam/Sir (without a last name) was a very popular option in France, with nearly 70% picking it as their first or second choice. It was also popular in India and the Netherlands, with nearly 50% of the students choosing it as either their 1st or 2nd preference.

Male teachers are more likely to be called professor

What I found most fascinating were the gender differences, i.e. whether the teacher was male or female. Although they were small for most options, Maria was significantly less likely to be addressed as Professor Smith and significantly more likely to be addressed with the Dr. title and given name (i.e. Dr. Maria). Apparently, students are rather more likely to see a male teacher as a professor and are more inclined to use the given name (although prefaced with the Dr. title) for female teachers.

Differences are also apparent for the student's gender. Even when controlling for country differences, male students are significantly less likely to call their teacher Professor Smith and are significantly more likely to call their teacher by their first name than female students are. Male students seem to perceive less social distance between themselves and their teachers than female students do.

The two gender effects also seem to interact. Female students make few distinctions between male and female teachers. The only difference is that they are slightly more likely to address their female teacher with Dr. Maria than they do their male teacher with Dr. Peter. Male students display this tendency as well, but in addition are significantly less likely to address their female teachers with Professor Smith than they do for their male teachers. They also have a slightly higher tendency to address their female teachers as Teacher or Mrs Smith than they call their male teachers Teacher or Mr Smith.

Language effects

The other effect that I found particularly interesting is the language effect in Canada, where we collected data from Anglophones in English and Francophones in either English or French. Preferences of students with English as their native language were always closer to US respondents than preferences of students with French as their native language.

However, even within the group of Francophone students there was a difference depending on the language of the questionnaire (questionnaires were randomly distributed in French and English in this group). For the Mrs/Mr Smith option for instance only 33% of the Francophones responding in English chose this as their first or second preferred option, whereas 70% of the Francophones responding in French did, which is very close the highest scoring country for this option: France with 76%.

Incidentally, the major aim of this project was to investigate whether the language of the questionnaire [English or native] influenced the response and whether this differed for rating and ranking questions. The full results are published as:

  • Harzing, A.W.; and 26 collaborators (2009) Rating versus ranking: what is the best way to reduce response and language bias in cross-national research?, International Business Review, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 417-432. Available online... Publisher’s version


Overall, our results might provide some interesting insights into country differences in the preferred way to address teachers. Our paper also presents teachers with an interesting case study to discuss in their class as an introduction to cross-cultural differences in a setting that is close to students' daily experience. It is clear that the topic is of some interest as the white paper gets 1,500 to 2,000 page visits a month.